My homework was my job, my father always told me. While he worked for the family’s well-being, it was a privilege, he said, for me to be blessed with a good set of words to learn, picked by teachers of rare quality. I understood. He was right, but I still resented memorizing such an arduous list of words—words that I might never use anyway. My homework consisted of looking the words up in a dictionary, and writing five complete sentences for each of the twenty words assigned that week. My father would always make a point of seeing my completed homework each night, but he never really studied it. A simple flash of marked paper would do and occasionally he would remind me, upon seeing my completed homework, that incomplete assignments resulted in one of his signature spankings. However, in the face of such a monotonous task as learning vocabulary, I began to learn some shortcuts. Without anyone to read my assignments, I could get away with half, and sometimes almost incomprehensible, sentences. On weeks that I particularly wanted to shirk my work, I would even write gibberish and squigglies in place of words, knowing that a few missing points here and there wouldn’t have any real effect on my grades. One day, returning from rough-housing in my neighbor’s yard, I found my slapdash homework in a pile on the living room table, where I accidentally left it, with my father reading a book on the far couch. Carefully, I flashed my homework to him and stuffed it into my schoolbag.
“Finished already?” my dad asked without looking up from his book.
“Yes, sir,” I replied walking toward my room. At the doorframe, I saw he had taken off his glasses and fixed his eyes on me without any trace of tension in his face.
“If you’re not going to do something well, why would you bother doing it at all?” he said, returning to his book. I didn’t move or speak.
Homework was my job, my father told me.